Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Mountaineering Class Post 4: A Weekend on the Nisqually Glacier

Last weekend was the Mountaineering Class Snow 2 trip. We headed out to Mount Rainier to spend two days on the Nisqually Glacier, honing our ice and glacier travel skills.

Saturday started with the usual thorough pack check to make sure we had all the required gear. Turns out the Paradise parking lot wins the prize for prettiest pack check location so far in the class.
We set out into the snow to hike a few miles to the glacier. It was an amazingly sunny, warm, and clear day.
When we got to the edge of the glacier, we pulled out our harnesses, ropes, ice axes, and helmets. We had practiced roping up several times before- twice on grass and once on snow- but never on a real glacier. Here you can tell we are on rope teams because of how evenly spaced we are. 
In the typical style of the class, the day was comprised of rotating stations. My team's first station of the day was general glacier travel. It was a rundown of tips, safety considerations, and what to expect next weekend when we climb Mount Baker.
Our second station was hortizontal ice. We finally got to use crampons! And I managed to not rip any holes in boots, pants, gators, or legs. We focused on French techniques where you don't use the toe spikes. I have to say, I wasn't a huge fan of this station, but we had good instruction and I know the skills we practiced are important. Apparently the angle of ice we were on was steeper than we will actually encounter on Mt. Baker, so that was comforting.

Our next station was called Prusik Cafe. I understood the prusik part- we would use our Texas prusik system (a friction knot with leg loops) to get out of a crevasse! I had been looking forward to this since I heard about it months ago.

"But why is it called a cafe?" I scoffed. "Are they going to have coffee?" As it turns out, yes! They had three ropes set up, so three students could be in the crevasse at a time. While the others waited, they would heat water and make us our choice of tea, hot chocolate, or apple cider. It was a blazingly hot day so a hot beverage was not top priority, but I loved the novelty of it anyway. The awesome instructors had made huge snow bollards as anchors, and we put on our raingear and they lowered us in. Yeah!

Hashtag crevasseselfie
Being inside the crevasse was one of the coolest experiences I've had in a long time. We were far enough down, and over a lip, that it was hard to hear an instructor up top. I felt like I was alone down there, having to use my prusik system and figure out anything else all on my own.

Just the feeling of being down there is hard to describe. It has the serenity of a mountain, the coziness of a cave, the luminous beauty of ice. It's strangely expansive and claustrophobic at the same time. It was also sort of nice to be in the cool, damp shade after relentless sun and snow reflection. 

The final station of the day was Z-Pulley. Also called Z-Drag, this is a system of pulleys, rope, and friction knots that creates a mechanical advantage of 3 to haul a load up. You could use it to pull some one out of a crevasse who was not able to self-rescue.
From Wikipedia
I liked this station a lot. I don't have any experience with setting up these kinds of systems, so it was like a fun puzzle. After you get the hang of it, it's not complicated, and it's satisfying to know how to do.

The busy day was winding down, and we got ready to leave. Some instructors camped on the glacier, but most instructors and all the students hiked out. We were camped down the road from Paradise, but my carpool all agreed that cooking at camp sounded like too much work to our tired bodies. So we opted for a nice dinner at the Paradise Lodge before returning exhausted to our tents. 

Sunday was a similar routine, hiking in and doing our stations, but turned up a notch. 
We went into a bigger crevasse, and this time with backpacks on. We did more advanced low-angle ice crampon practice. Z-Pulley got a more complex scenario. The big change was that instead of Glacier Travel, we got to do a Vertical Ice station. That means ice climbing! It was my first time trying it, and I loved it. No worries about reaching holds like in rock climbing- you just hack your own with spikes and axes. It's great!
It proved to be another fabulous day on the Nisqually. We kept moving all day and learned a ton, but somehow it never felt rushed. Somehow, I still had time for hot chocolate, snacks, and reapplying sunscreen a million times. Somehow, I still got sunburned even with said sunscreen. But I felt good, invigorated, and most importantly, every one stayed safe. We made it back to the parking lot as a happy bunch, ready to celebrate with an aptly-named Rainier beer, and ready to climb Mount Baker this weekend!


Bruce Allison said...

Great photos Amber. I enjoyed reading this...we should have you update the whole WAC site for the Basic class.You have me sold on taking it again! :-)

AmberAnda said...

Hi Bruce! Thanks so much for reading and thanks for your comment! :)

ama41 said...

Wow, you are on the ball. I am still editing pictures. Great write up and pictures. It was such a great weekend and conductive learning atmosphere. I have to agree that the low angle ice station was probably my least favorite mainly because it burned my legs!